Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

Network vs. Insurgents?

Perhaps Pentagon optimists are right. Perhaps the success of Blue Force Tracker, of the special-forces assault on the Taliban column, and of air force operations in Iraq accurately foretell the full digital transformation of war. But to many observers, the disruption of communications between the main ground combat units in Iraq was not a very promising sign at all. “If there is this ‘revolution in military affairs,’ and if this revolution is based on technologies that allow you to network sensors and process information more quickly and spread it out quickly in digestible form, we are still just scratching the surface of it,” says Cote of MIT. “If you look at the performance of a lot of the components of the first efforts in that direction, it’s a pretty patchy performance.” And then there’s the question of terror and insurgency. Even if the Pentagon transforms war fighting, the meaning of the word “war” is itself undergoing a transformation. More Americans died in the September 11 attacks than have subsequently died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the Iraq insurgency challenges the meaning of the Iraq military victory. Future wars will be fought in urban zones by low-tech fanatics who do not follow the old rules. They are unlikely to array themselves as convenient targets for the U.S. to detect and destroy. Indeed, a leading cause of death among U.S. soldiers in Iraq today is improvised bombs targeting passing vehicles such as Humvees.

Arquilla says some networking technology can be – and is being – brought to bear against the Iraq insurgency. While actual strategies are secret, some general tactics are known. Suspicious vehicles can be tracked, and their connections to other people and locations determined. Small drone aircraft can deliver video feeds from urban buildings as well as from desert battlefields. Sensors can help find a sniper by measuring the acoustical signature of a bullet. And jamming devices can sometimes block radio-controlled detonation of roadside bombs. But old-fashioned tips from humans are likely to trump technology. “Our networks don’t really have the sensitivity to keep up with unconventional enemies. All the network does is move information around, but the information itself is the key to victory,” says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, VA. “It’s a little hard to derive meaningful lessons from networked war fighting when you are dealing with such modest threats.”

The welter of postmortems from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars tell many stories. But one thing is clear: Marcone never knew what was coming at Objective Peach. Advanced sensors and communications – elements of future networked warfare designed for difficult, unconventional battles – failed to tell him about a very conventional massed attack. “It is my belief that the Iraqi Republican Guard did nothing special to conceal their intentions or their movements. They attacked en masse using tactics that are more recognizable with the Soviet army of World War II,” Marcone says.

And so at a critical juncture in space (a key Euphrates bridge) and time (the morning of the day U.S. forces captured the Baghdad airport), Marcone only learned what he was facing when the shooting began. In the early-morning hours of April 3, it was old-fashioned training, better firepower, superior equipment, air support, and enemy incompetence that led to a lopsided victory for the U.S. troops. “When the sun came up that morning, the sight of the cost in human life the Iraqis paid for that assault, and burning vehicles, was something I will never forget,” Marcone says. “It was a gruesome sight. You look down the road that led to Baghdad, for a mile, mile and a half, you couldn’t walk without stepping on a body part.”

Yet just eight U.S. soldiers were wounded, none seriously, during the bridge fighting. Whereas U.S. tanks could withstand a direct hit from Iraqi shells, Iraqi vehicles would “go up like a Roman candle” when struck by U.S. shells, Marcone says. Sitting in an office at Rand, Gordon puts things bluntly: “If the army had had Strykers at the front of the column, lots of guys would have been killed.” At Objective Peach, what protected Marcone’s men wasn’t information armor, but armor itself.

0 comments about this story. Start the discussion »

Tagged: Computing

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me